“I’ve lived a crazy life,” said David Gong.
But “crazy” is definitely an understatement. Gong has been battling cancer since he was 15-years-old, having been diagnosed with cancer 11 different times, but the face of death has not kept him down and out. Gong has thrived in life, has made it through incredibly rough times, and continues to greet each day with a smile and a drive to give back to the community he calls home.
And it all started in the pool.
“I grew up swimming,” said Gong. “I swam competitively since I was like four-years-old.”
Gong said that he has swam in clubs, for recreation and on many teams. His swimming skills would eventually take him to international competitions, and even take him close to setting a new world record.
As a freshman at Monache High School, Gong played varsity water polo and swam on the varsity swim team.
“Everything was going fine,” said Gong about his first year as a high school student. He was excelling in sports, maintaining good grades and gaining popularity among his peers. But his sophomore year is when his life completely changed.
At only 15-years-old, Gong was diagnosed with cancer for the first time.
“I really didn’t know a whole lot about cancer,” said Gong. “My parents took it a lot harder than I did.”
After a trip to Cedars-Sinai, a hospital near UCLA, a tumor was found in his knee which prompted a total knee replacement. Once the replacement was done, Gong went through chemotherapy for months.
“I had crazy side effects,” said Gong. “I had canker sores one time that covered my entire throat and I couldn’t eat. But this was back in like ‘85 and chemotherapy has come a long way since then.”
Gong continued chemotherapy and returned to school, but his school spirit and passion for being in the pool dimmed.
“I didn’t want to swim anymore,” said Gong. “I was one of those kids who was real popular in school at the time, and once I became ‘the kid with cancer’ I wanted to fade into the background. I didn’t want to do sports anymore, and I knew I wasn’t going to be the same anymore.”
Gong says his decision making took a turn for the worst and he began partying, doing drugs, skipping school and making all around bad choices. To add insult to injury, Gong was diagnosed with cancer for the second time during his junior year of high school. This time, the cancer was in his tibia. He went through several more months of chemotherapy and had the bone removed. He was missing lots of school and says he was making even worse decisions.
“Things were spiraling out of control quickly,” said Gong.
Although there was help coming from different sources like counselors, teachers and interventions, Gong’s spirit and drive for life still dwindled until it was completely snuffed out.
“I didn’t care,” said Gong. “I felt already that my life had been ruined at 16. I was a great athlete once, and that was taken away from me. I did good in school, and then that was gone. So I didn’t graduate.”
Gong didn’t get to walk with his friends during their graduation ceremony. Instead he sat in the audience and watched those he had gone to school with collect their diplomas.
“It still hurts,” said Gong. “Even to this day it hurts. I can still remember exactly what I felt like. I had everything, and I made bad choices, so I got what I got.”
Gong was enrolled into Citrus High School, but eventually decided it would be best to move to San Diego and live with his older brother who was a police officer. While in San Diego, Gong got a full-time job working at a medical supply distribution center. He worked his way up through the ranks and became the assistant manager working at least 60 hours a week. When he wasn’t working, Gong was in the ocean on his surfboard.
“I loved to surf,” said Gong. “I wanted to do it all day long.”
Living in San Diego at 20-years-old, Gong began feeling a pain in his knee, the same knee that had been replaced when he was 15.
“I knew what it was,” said Gong. “I tried to avoid going to see a doctor and when I finally did, it was cancer, of course, for the third time, in the femur.”
A portion of his leg was removed and he reverted back to his old ways, and decided to move back to Porterville. Once he was back, he put the pedal to metal and partied harder than ever. His parents eventually couldn’t take it anymore and told him to pack up his stuff and leave. Gong did just that, and returned to San Diego where he was a homeless drug addict, living on crutches
“I had nothing going for me at all and, I don’t know, I just snapped out of it,” said Gong. “I knew I needed to go back to school. There was no way around it.”
Gong pulled himself out of his slump and signed up for community college through California Rehab, which covered his expenses for school. He was living in his car, carrying 18 unit semesters and maintaining a 4.0 grade point average (GPA). He slept in a parking lot, and eventually picked up two part-time jobs. He saved every penny from his work and was able to rent a room. As time went by he upgraded to an apartment, and eventually owned his own place. He was clean and sober, and back on the right track.
“While I was going to school, I had a 4.0 GPA so I had straightened myself out and I was carrying more than enough units,” said Gong. “In summer school I knew I had to take a PE class, so I looked at all the PE classes and took swimming.”
Gong hadn’t been in a pool for more than a year. He found out the summer school coach for his PE class was the women’s swim coach. One day she had her best swimmers out in the pool, and Gong was invited to swim with them. He says he started as the slowest, but in a matter of weeks he was keeping pace. He wasn’t fully prepared for the class final though, a timed mile, as he had never swam long distance.
“They timed me and she couldn’t believe it,” said Gong. “She said “Do you know how close you are to the school record?” and she went and brought the guys coach.”
The coach for the men’s swim team, initially thought the time was a miscount and came out the next week to time Gong himself. When he saw the time wasn’t a miscount, the coach followed Gong around campus trying to recruit him to the team. Gong began practicing with the team, while doing volunteer work at the beach by teaching kids how to swim.
During his time in college, Gong was diagnosed with cancer four different times.
“Right before the (swim) season started, I had what I thought was the flu, and it turned out to be lung cancer,” said Gong. “Multiple tumors in both lungs.”
Over the next two years, Gong would be diagnosed with lung cancer three more times.
“It would knock me out of school and I would have to hit the reset button every time,” said Gong.
As his swimming career at the college level began to progress, Gong was put in touch with a prosthetics company that was eager to get in touch with him. He received a tour of the company, met all the prosthetics creators and the CEO. The company’s CEO told him they would build him a leg for free as long as he swam in one meet, the Far West Regionals. Gong had already had lung cancer four times, and told the CEO he couldn’t swim more than 200 yards, but the CEO insisted he compete. Gong went to the Far West Regional meet and won all five of his events.
“Over the next few months, I started receiving letters from around the world; Japan, Australia, Copenhagen,” said Gong. “They wanted to invite me to come swim in this international meet and that international meet. And I’m just thinking like what is going on? What is all of this about?”
One letter really caught Gong’s attention. It was a letter from the U.S. Olympic Committee. It explained Gong was ranked No. 1 in the world in multiple swimming events, and was only four tenths of a second away from beating world record in 50 meter freestyle. Gong was only 25-years-old at the time.
“I had to pick a meet to go to so I started looking around for all these different meets, and where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do,” said Gong.
He decided to compete in the Summer Nationals in Boston.
“It was like the summer games,” said Gong. “It was an international event, but it was all sports. There were people there doing weight lifting, and all of these things. It was for people with disabilities, people in wheelchairs. The Para Olympics basically.”
Gong’s prosthetic leg was being worked on, so he had been using crutches when he began noticing a pain in his shoulder. He assumed it was because he was back on crutches after not having used them for a long time, so he jumped into the pool with nothing but winning on his mind.
“I remember them fishing me out and they were telling me I had blacked out in the middle of a race,” said Gong. “It turned out that, for the eighth time, I had cancer, right here in my scapula. I had a two inch fracture in my scapula from a tumor.”
Gong successfully clenched wins in the 100 meter freestyle and the 100 meter backstroke. When it came time to swim his 50 meter freestyle, the race everyone thought he would beat the world record in, he went 25 meters before he realized no one else was swimming and he had started too early. Gong didn’t beat the world record, but came out of the Summer Nationals as a three time world champion. After finding out he had cancer for the eighth time, Gong returned to live in Porterville.
“I couldn’t compete anymore, I couldn’t do anything anymore,” said Gong.
Gong decided he wanted to begin speaking publicly about his story.
“I told my mom that I wanted to speak somewhere,” said Gong. “I think the first school I spoke at was Granite Hills. I spoke in front of a few hundred kids, and then next thing you know it’s 500 kids, 1,000 kids, then I was speaking in front of 2,000 kids at a time.”
Eventually, Gong was speaking to 20,000 kids a month. He would speak at high schools and colleges, reaching between 40 and 50 schools a year.
“But I kept getting cancer. Eight, nine, ten, eleven,” said Gong. “I was getting so sick and ill that I had to stop giving speeches.”
But Gong didn’t stop spreading his word and influence after he couldn’t continue public speaking. He began to take the money he had saved up from his motivational speaking and started different projects and programs around the city.
“I started just doing different projects around the city,” said Gong. “I think the first project I started was the Aquatics Academy for under privileged kids. I raised all the money and got in all volunteer coaches. I think the first year we had over 300 kids.
“We were taking these kids off the street and teaching them how to swim. We were saving lives, giving kids something to do during the summer time.”
At the same time he was driving these projects and programs, the decades of chemotherapy he had been through led to kidney and heart failure. Medical professionals began to suggest Gong start dialysis, but he had no plans of being “hooked up to a machine” for the rest of his life.
When he first came back to Porterville, Gong got into some trouble that led him to serving 660 hours of community service at Helping Hands, a local non-profit organization that helps to feed the homeless and underserved community in the area.
“For six hours a day, six days a week, for six months, I fed homeless people,” said Gong. “I swore up and down I would never go back, but 17 years later I ended up as the Vice President, Head of Public Relations, and I had served over 1 million meals.”
Gong held multiple blood drives, water drives and clothes drives, and raised lots of money for Big Hearts, Little Hands, among many other things. One of the programs he’s most proud of starting is the Food Recovery Program in the school district.
“People would come to me and complain about the leftover food at the schools and I said I wanted to do something about it,” said Gong. “I started looking at the laws and the Good Samaritan law, where you can donate food. I went to the superintendent and said ‘Hey, we can do this right here.’ I showed him how and in two weeks we were collecting food from the school district.”
Through the Food Recovery Program, Gong had saved $45,000 worth of food in 9 months, and had high school students meeting with senators and congress members, urging the state and federal representatives to implement the program across the state.
“Think about how much money you could save with 1,400 high schools,” said Gong. “That’s millions. This was just another thing where I got sick and couldn’t finish.”
Although he’s still fighting cancer, Gong sits on multiple boards and donates back to the community using money he still has saved from speaking. He would like to build a pool at his home so he can continue to teach children how to swim and coach swimmers.
The newest obstacle headed Gong’s way is his dialysis regimen.
“My plan was that I wasn’t going to do dialysis, that was my choice, but I went and met with my pastor and he told me that I had a large influence over a lot of people and I didn’t know it,” said Gong. “I needed to think about what I was doing. That was probably two weeks ago, so I stopped taking all of my meds because I wanted to have a clear head to make my decision.”
Gong had decided he wanted to pass naturally, but once he was clearheaded, he decided to try dialysis after seeing the outreach he received from people via Facebook. Once his dialysis port is in place, he will be treated eight hours a day, every day, for the rest of his life.
“I figured I guess I’d be in the same place whether I like it or not,” said Gong. “I wouldn’t be any worse off, so if it works, it works. It’s like when you get in a car wreck and everything is in slow motion, that’s how my whole life is right now.
“I’ve tried to do good,” said Gong. “I’ve tried to make up for all of my shenanigans as a young man.”